“Can’t you do something about Jason?” I say to Andrew. “He seems to think if he gets his authorities in order it is going to help him get laid.”
“Look, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed that he is always talking about painters and writers,” I say. “He wants to read his way to sex.”
“Sounds a lot like you,” Andrew replies. He is a scientist and has little tolerance for my esoteric pursuits. “If he is anything like you, he is a lost cause.” Jason is me. I rescued him from Amsterdam thirty-five years ago and brought him here to save him from school. Andrew has come over all taciturn, so I offer him as much beer as he can drink and he says, “Why don’t you go and do a crappy painting like you do and I’ll talk to him.”
I get my sketchbook and paints, stuff them in a pack then head off up the line of the hill past an abandoned house and onto the path that leads to the woods. When I look back I see myself and Andrew together.
Andrew approaches me with a straight-forward question: “What is the point of all this reading?”
“Point?” I ask. “I’m not sure it has a point.”
“Look at him,” Andrew continues, pointing at fifty-one-year-old me striding off up the hill. “He is a sad git. I wanted to get your opinion on that. It is the road you are on, you know?”
“Don’t be so hard on him,” I say. “I feel for him. He seems to be having a hard time. You’d think he would be happy where he is, but he isn’t, is he? Can we change? That is a big question. I mean, can I change the course of a predestined slalom towards that level of sadness? It would be cool if I could but maybe I can’t. Maybe there is a lot more in this than my own psychological state, my personal decisions about stuff and what I had for breakfast.”
“Not sure I get you,” Andrew says.
“Come on,” I push on. “Peter has told me about your Humean view of pre-destination. You must get this. I’m rattling along on a juggernaut here. I can’t steer it. I can’t brake it.”
“Yes,” Andrew says draining the dregs of beer from his stubby and reaching for another. “The question is: are you really exactly the same as him? After all, so far as I know, he did not have the experience of escaping from Amsterdam as you have. Your trajectory could be totally different.”
“God, that is reassuring,” I say. “Not that I don’t like it here, mind. Physically. The space, the ambience, the culture. Cool. I like C. But I guess I have to go back at some point or I will get stuck in a loop.”
“That’s my guess,” Andrew says. He stares fixedly at a white spider that has crawled onto the stone wall in front of him and he remembers the reason for this talk, “What he just said to me is that reading is not going to help you get laid.”
“Don’t you think?” I ask. “I mean, I’m not exactly Adonis so I have to show that I’m interesting some other way.”
“Bingo!” says Andrew.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” Andrew mutters, “Just something I was talking about with him before. Look, take it from me you’d be better off doing something more practical, getting a well-paid job and tidying up your appearance. If you went to the gym a bit that would help as well. I mean, if you want to get laid.”
“But isn’t it possible to read and get laid? I mean, I think the ball has started rolling in that respect. I’m not sure it is going to help me much to listen to pop science ideas and cod philosophy concerning predestination.”
“God, you are irritating,” Andrew splutters.
“What can I possibly do about that?” I ask.
It has not rained in a week and the leaf litter is dry. I rest my back on the limestone and look through the tracery of branches to the far hill-side. There is a sharp winter light that changes as the clouds rub across the face of the sun. The lights and darks interchange in a moment on the complicated architecture of the trees, but the overall sensation is of calm and structure. As I am sitting here I think that all good reading is anti-authoritarian.
A painter I met told me he was working at the vanguard of art. He said he was “pushing back the boundaries of art.” He said he was doing things so subtle that very few people would ever be able to appreciate them. “How lonely,” I thought. He was agitated. I could see that he thought I did not take him seriously enough and it was true that I could not take him at his own estimation of himself without capsizing my sense of balance in the world. He wanted to be a petulant tyrant of painting, declaring himself the sole ruler of the imperium. It was ludicrous. There was no question that he worked hard at the pose but it was ultimately no more than that- a pose.
Sheep do nothing more than bleat about geniuses in art galleries. When you ask them what they mean, they talk about importance, significance, innovation and creativity as though these bland abstractions meant anything. They have succumbed to an authoritarian reading of the world. But what good does it do to trot out the key facts about the key painters? Once the authoritarians have us all believing that what is truly important about the history of art is working out whether this object is authentic or not, we will have finally been duped into surrendering the remaining vestiges of our intelligence. Our ability to read will have been subsumed into the banal study of prices and markets.
When I come back down the hill Andrew and Jason are waiting for me.
“Listen,” says Andrew. “We have had an idea.”